Birthday girl and her brother celebrating the Big 2

Birthday girl and her brother celebrating the Big 2

It was a dark and stormy night. Not really—instead it was the end of a hot and sweltering day when I came into the world just before sunset in Kearney, Nebraska. I just barely made it into June.

And most years my birthday feels nothing like the rest of June. Baby, it’s pretty much always hot when my “queen for a day” day comes along.

The story goes that “back in the day” hospitals did not have air conditioning in most rooms. The small town hospital maternity ward where my mother gave birth to me had only one room with a window air conditioner, which was reserved for women recovering from cesarean sections. On that particular June 30th, five women ended up in that room, although only one woman had her baby by C-section. That day’s hot, hot, hot baby boom led the other four women to agree—very willingly—to stay together in tight quarters.

My mom’s friend, doped up from surgery, kept looking at her and slurring, “What’s she doing here?” Took her awhile to figure out that every woman in that room had her own brand new baby girl and no one was there just to visit her.

Ever since that day many of my birthdays have involved water, thanks to typical June 30 weather. That and/or baseball games—first my brother’s and then my son’s games.

Well, I don’t plan to see any baseball tonight, but I’ve already been to deep water exercise this morning—which was somewhat like my own personal pool party, right? Thank goodness for that because my next planned activity is my weekly 6:00 p.m. track practice. Clouds would be really, really nice—if the Big Guy is listening and would like to offer that as a birthday gift, I—and the other women on the track, I’m sure—would be truly grateful.

Birthday girl watching the goldfish swim

Birthday girl watching the goldfish swim

Don’t have big plans for this day/night, but it’s always good to reach another year of this crazy experience we call life and to still be able to do most of the activities I love. Hot days, cold days, rainy days, fair days—may I never forget how blessed I am to get do them all again. So thankful for the people who have been with me on this journey—those who were with me right from the start—many of whom I miss now—and those whom I have met along the way—and those I have yet to get to know.

The future’s still so bright on this sunny June day—going to keep wearing my shades. And, like my mother before me, will search out a little coolness for relief from the heat, when necessary.

Welcome, New-Year-to-Me. Together, we’re going to put the sizzle in these next twelve months. Ssssssssss . . .

Some of the women standing by the limo. (Picture taken for us, 2015)

Some of the women standing by the limo. (Picture taken for us, 2015)

Just when you thought that limousine was full of hot young women, you might have been surprised to see the women from my bible study climb out—or lumber out if we want to be truthful. Keep in mind that I am the youngest in the group—thank goodness my hip is healing because it took quite a bit of effort to shimmy back and forth from the depths of that stretch limo. The more limber folks among us did our best to scoot to the back whenever loading up.

So why would a group of “mature” bible study ladies hire a limo?

I guess because we have no access to a church van and because we wanted to take our road trip together—while avoiding the increasingly hostile traffic in the region.

And what a road trip. These “ladies who did lunch with me” not only offered to go 70 miles (one way) to see my daughter’s senior capstone art show as a group, but also to treat me to the gift of transportation with them for the ride. What a great showing of support for both my daughter and me—have appreciated all their prayers for my family over the years, but this expedition was something else.

Let’s just say that not driving while also not being able to see how our driver was handling that crazy roadway was extremely relaxing. (Perhaps a little bit of a metaphor about control there? Hm.)

No doubt the arrival of our bustling group shattered the illusion of a quiet morning for Max, one of the owners of ARTISAN FRAMING, the custom framing shop where the works are being exhibited. But, ever the professional, he took our presence in stride and continued constructing frames despite the considerable change in noise level. I did the best I could to play gallery host to my daughter’s works, but was relieved when she and her brother arrived together—without a limo driver their journey took a bit longer.

She took over answering questions and I got to bask in the pride I feel knowing that the little girl who always made art out of materials grabbed from our recycling bin grew into an accomplished artist who creates pieces by repurposing common materials.

We left the artist and her brother behind to their own plans so that we really could go do lunch before riding back to our own town. At the Mainline Ale House we not only received excellent service and ate tasty food, but we all also received the anniversary special of two-for-one entrees. What a pleasant surprise to add to our already pleasant experience.

Neither rain nor parking woes nor traffic slowdowns stayed our swift courier from completing his appointed round—we had a ticket to ride and I’m so grateful that everyone cared enough to let my daughter to know that she, also, has a ticket to ride.

The only way that will bring us down is if she doesn’t take that ticket and ride with the gift of art she has worked so hard to nurture—she has a ticket to ride and may she ride it for all it is worth. Limousines, planes, trains, or automobiles—any form of transportation it takes, but she’s got a ticket to ride—and we all do care.

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

“Puppy, puppy, puppy”—that’s what my husband Sherman used to say to me when I was waiting for my puppy to get old enough to come home to live with us. I had puppy fever bad. As an adult I had never had a puppy right from its early weeks away from its mama. Not too long after my own mama died in a pretty horrible way, so did my dog. I’d had it with old age and illness. I needed youth to renew me—or at least that’s how it felt.

Now that four years have passed since our puppy came to us, I still know that getting a puppy was what most helped me through the healing days. Yes, taking care of that puppy and raising him was hard and took a lot of energy, but loving him put my focus on growth and rebirth—and fun and joy.

Nothing like being around a puppy for helping you to see that the world is pretty exciting—even if you don’t quite agree with the puppy on what exactly is so exciting. Morning! Breakfast! People! Grass! Sticks!

So here we are with a puppy in our home again, but it isn’t really ours. We’re not up with it in the night or cleaning up most of the messes—unless we offer to be on puppy duty. Yes, our daughter just graduated from college but she’s been waiting over six years to get her own dog. This is no post-graduate whim for her.

To everyone who thinks it’s crazy to get a puppy when you’re looking for that first career job and hoping to move out on your own (again), I just have to say that the healing power of puppies can be worth a lot of the cost (time and money) involved. It’s a big transition to finish school and come home again, but now she has bigger motivation for moving on to what comes next.

The puppy has her keeping a daily schedule and requires her to plan ahead for how she’s going to complete her obligations. She is taking two computer skill-based classes at the community college to round out her abilities and has to figure out how to get that work done on deadline without the puppy eating up our house or doing unsafe things. She borrowed a pen so that we could all work on getting her moved back in—not an easy task when someone’s been living in an apartment for four years—and she could start on her class work. The puppy’s own pen should arrive any day, even if he hasn’t yet demonstrated any affection yet for not being the center of attention.

She is also training him to use a crate and taking him on frequent walks to prepare him for the likely day he becomes an apartment-dweller. She also sees how good it is to be able to work him through his often noisy protests to boundaries now while she doesn’t yet have neighbors that live just a wall away.

The puppy is in his own way training her to develop a routine while filling her heart during these early days when her former social structure has so recently ended. Nothing like the full-out run of the little tyke as he races to see her when she comes home from her evening class.

The first week with a puppy here again has been chaotic but rewarding. He is a quick little learner, especially thanks to our daughter’s commitment to creating consistent boundaries—despite how adorable he is and despite how exhausting every waking (and interrupted sleeping!) minute is. She is in this for the long term—and it shows.

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

The puppy, puppy, puppy has come to stay at our house and I think he will likely turn out to be what inspires her to figure out just what comes next in her post-grad journey. She has dog food to buy—and someone who already knows she won’t let him down, even if he’s not going to like her spending less time with him.

For some of us, when life gets hard, we get a puppy—and somehow everything else seems easier.

(c) 2015 Sherman Lambert

(c) 2015 Sherman Lambert

This May has seemed too busy to be thinking much about the future. Not only was our daughter graduating from college, but she was also putting together a solo art show. My husband spending time with her setting up the exhibit. Check. Our going up for the opening. Check. Getting the house ready (enough) for our graduation visitors and picking them up and spending the day before graduation away from the festivities. Check. Meeting up with our daughter and then watching her graduate before going out for a celebration dinner. Check. Spending the night at a motel and then celebrating some more with her before coming back to our home with our guests. Check. Day of local sight-seeing with guests before taking them to airport. Check. Getting a cold. Check?

Busy times for sure, all in the midst of Mother Nature’s deciding we need a cool, rainy (and snowy if you count Mother’s Day) May as we haven’t seen for a few years. In fact, the road trips to and from the art show opening were so ridiculous that I was starting to expect encounters with the Cyclops, Sirens, and a few other Odyssean-type characters. Luckily graduation weekend weather was less dramatic, although we were told we had just missed the biggest hailstorm of the past 30 years in Estes Park, the location where we spent the night before graduation. Nonetheless, all this “weather” does mean I don’t have to rush to get my plants in the ground—which is good because I haven’t had time to do so anyway.

So many people have asked us, “She’s graduating already?” Sort of funny since she has been in college for five years—and since she had 122 credits last May, but still had 11 remaining required credits that would take her two consecutive semesters and without having a summer option available. Sigh—but this isn’t the post about the systemic problems that led to an extra year of college. This, however, is the post about what’s next.

Not sure in the long term, but in the short term she’s taking two “practical” courses at the local community college this summer to shore up her graphic design skills and to add website design to what she can do. She’s applying for jobs in the usual ways, plus through connections of mine, she has some future visits at a nearby large logo-based sportswear company and a local art gallery. She’s selling embellished baby shoes and getting contracts for custom designs on adult shoes. Also—and this is a really big deal—the quality and quantity of the work at her solo show recently brought her toughest college professor to tears. Her arts entrepreneurship professor critiqued her website and stated that, of all the visual artists the woman has taught, so far she is the one most poised for commercial success, thanks to her versatility. While the “world” is telling our daughter a BFA in studio art is crazy, she’s receiving very positive feedback that shows she does have the ability to at least supplement her income, and possibly create her income herself, by making art.

For now this likely means she’ll be back home with us for awhile while she figures out just how she is going to support herself—which is not so different from other recent college graduates, especially in the metro-Denver area where the most recently reported rent rates are averaging around $1200 monthly.

We haven’t even helped her move home yet but she’s here now. After a couple nights of decent sleep, she goes back to her college home to begin packing up her goods that somehow we are going to have to squeeze back into this house. Of course, we will all have to deal with more than “stuff” when she returns—as we learn how to be a four-person household again and as she learns how to live under our roof again after being on her own—and we all learn what it means to live together when everyone here is an adult.

As a family, we’ve reached a crossroads. The road signs don’t really provide a clear direction for which way she should turn in order to discover the best way to be able to leave for good. But no doubt about it, she is finally on her own way—even if she doesn’t know—yet—where she’s going.

(c) 2014 Trina Lambert  Hummingbird Moth seen among the flowers at O'Toole's

(c) 2014 Trina Lambert
Hummingbird Moth seen among the flowers at O’Toole’s

Mother’s Day has come and gone and that makes me think of . . . planting flowers. Here in the metro Denver area of Colorado, gardening experts warn us not to put annuals in the ground until after Mother’s Day—which is really good advice. This year that day dawned with about six inches of snow blanketing my lawn. Much as I love my local garden centers, I’d rather support them by purchasing plants that live. And so I wait, but not very patiently.

For me, searching for seasonal colors in a place that only sells plants and trees and soil and the like is worth the extra pennies. I know I can usually find plants for cheaper at big box stores, but the quality and experience is nowhere near the same as that in a garden center—plus I really don’t want to contribute to the demise of this type of business so near and dear to my heart.

I most definitely work to support local businesses by patronizing them and by sharing my good encounters with others. However, I am only one person so I also love seeing that other businesses such as Good Monster—which creates engaging customer experiences through digital marketing—support the cause by helping the types of local businesses, such as those I mention here, build and maintain customer awareness. I want others to share in the joy I experience, but I also, selfishly, want to keep the businesses I enjoy in business. Yes, I have ulterior motives, but I also believe that others—small business owners and other customers—benefit from our support of  unique businesses and how those businesses add to local economies (and beyond) while fostering a more creative business climate for all.

And thus, my first plant-buying expedition of the season takes me to a small family-owned nursery that, despite all the development built-up around it, has more land than I ever imagined. Bonsai Nursery Inc. (Englewood) offers so many more plant options than the casual gardener I am needs. Other than providing my yard with two dwarf conifer trees and a (gift) rosebush, Bonsai mostly serves as the place where I go in order to bring home the splash and easy-care of annual plants for my containers and built-in beds.

But what splash those flowers have brought my yard over the years. Bonsai is a quiet sanctuary where I can arrive on a weekday and take my time moving back and forth between flats of plants while visualizing and dreaming. I do not buy the colorful pre-made hanging baskets—I come here to create for myself. Which palettes do I want to honor this year for each of my various containers and which of the available plants will work best together? If I pause too long, often one of the owners shouts across the space to find out if I need help. He can answer what conditions work for certain plants or when he will be getting another truckload of which plants and talk about how the current season’s conditions are affecting what is available and which plants are thriving. Not only do I get experienced guidance on the flowers and conditions, but also on fertilizers and soils and maintenance—all served up with humor from the various family members. They may not remember me personally but they most definitely do remember those who return season after season for larger purchases I can only covet. Though I wish I could spend even more there, I always spend more than I should.

My next stop on my plant-buying tour—usually a few days later—is at the closest of three metro Denver stores. The experience at O’Toole’s Garden Center (Littleton) could not be more different. Even early on a weekday May morning, the parking lot is full. I park as far away as I can to avoid all the crazy shoppers who just can’t seem to buy enough plants—once again I envy their budgets. In through the store and out to the plant patio and the land beyond, we shoppers negotiate our carts between aisles packed with almost-overwhelming options. The ever patient plant specialists working amongst the plants provide solid advice as we line up for their expertise on plants as well as for their knowledge of where the newest shipments are on site. Off to the side and across the back we can find more, more, more—maybe the hidden plants at the back corner will be even more vibrant than those on close display—the hunt in O’Toole’s can take me hours as I—and many others—waver between this and that option. All the while lively music (from the younger days of many of the shoppers) plays over the loud system—plant-buying at O’Toole’s is a party, not a solitary experience. We whisper admissions of guilt to one another about how we are just too tempted to behave properly with our purchases. Non-gardening family members enter into this pleasure palace at their own risk.

I admit I still pick up a plant or two at the big box centers—but only to round out what I have not found elsewhere. For pure magic and possibility, only garden centers provide. As I write this—full well knowing my schedule is too busy yet for my seasonal return to the garden (centers)—I am already seeing, smelling, and touching those beautiful plants that will fill my heart again this season—even those flowers I only visit in passing on the journey to finding those that will come home with me to brighten up our humble spaces.

Thanks to my local garden centers, paradise awaits.

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

My dogs have watched the old morning glory vine with fascination, ever since they figured out the sounds and smells they detected come from birds—clever birds that hid the nest behind a tangle of old vines. Even I can’t see any birds if I look from the side closest to the door.

Each year, at least one pair of finches graces our lawn with songs from the clothesline or trellis or wires strung above our yard, although some years we never discover where they build their nests. Most of the years they choose well, although there have been a few disasters, such as the time they built a nest on loose wood that moved with the winds or low in a trellis that our former English Springer Spaniel could head butt.

The current two spaniels normally let birds flit and flutter around the yard unimpeded, but the constant sounds coming from that hidden nest seem just too tempting for them to ignore. Sam stands on two paws, sniffing with delight in the general direction, while Furgus settles in the grass watching.

I am not comfortable with supporting this habit—circle of life or not. My dogs have a healthy diet of quality (read: expensive) prepared food and also con us out of table scraps from time to time. Their health does not depend upon eating little birds. Any time they get too obsessed and I can’t distract them from their subjects of interest, I bring them in.

Today, as I looked out the window (currently screen-less in order to aid in our own bird-watching views) I saw both Mr. and Mrs. Finch hovering, almost hummingbird-like around the nest. Usually they take turns visiting and feeding their squeaky little offspring. One would dance toward the nest and fly back and then the other would swoop in. But today, little flutters of wings answered in response from the nest.

Suddenly I realized those formerly fuzzy-headed and barely covered little birds, now seem feathered-out, so to speak. It’s almost time. Wow, that was quick. Wasn’t it just one of the most recent cold snaps (with snow!) when they broke out of their shells? These little finches seem destined to take the most important steps (flights) of their journeys during Colorado’s flakiest spring weather days.

On this cool and rainy morning, those birds are getting ready to fly away from the nest.

What a metaphor the finch babies give me this day when we will soon attend our daughter’s solo art exhibit opening. Next week she graduates from college, but this week she shares a tangible view into the work from her hands, mind, and heart. Our baby is getting ready to fly and we are so proud of not only how well she has developed and strengthened the talent with which she seems to have been born, but also how she persevered through many dark and stormy days—and yet still is seeking flight—just like the finch babies outside on our porch.

No wonder the songs of Mr. and Mrs. Finch resonate outside my window and fill the yard with such joyful noise.

Though our yard hosts hazards such as spaniels and the occasional visiting cat or hawk, the Finches still sing with the joy of what comes next. The babies in the nest are safer from outside threats, but if they stayed, they would soon wither from lack of movement—and they’d never know what it’s like to soar—a glorious feeling despite all the risks.

Fly, little birdies, fly—the world is waiting for you, too, to fill your surroundings with your own joyful noises.

(c) 2012 Christiana Lambert

(c) 2012 Christiana Lambert

Last night my son and I stumbled on a video my daughter and her friend created when they were in high school—we had a great time laughing at how early this silly video shows up on a Google search for her name. Just imagine her future employers finding it—and seeing a little bit of who she was on one day in the year she was sixteen. Heck, I even make a cameo appearance in the video—and I am sprinting—not bad for a younger/old gal, right?

But the nostalgia for those days pulled at me and reminded me just how much water has passed under the so many bridges she has crossed since then. While watching, I longed for those simpler days—the before when so many things seemed easier.

Until I looked at the date stamp. The time frozen in that video was not an easier era—it was just one golden moment in the midst of a very dark period. The moving pictures showed a seemingly ordinary good day made all the more extraordinary by my discovering the date when it happened.

Just goes to show you that images are not always what they seem and that even when life is difficult, there are often moments when we shed the weight burdening us and live with joy one moment to the next.

My daughter graduates from college in two weeks—two weeks!

May she always remember that life is full of golden moments, even in the darkest of times. We may have just this one goofy visual reminder of a day when she smiled and I sprinted, but we also have smiled and sprinted on many other days, too—and still do. The trick for anyone is reminding yourself that grabbing small, beautiful moments, such as those shown in that video, is always possible. Always.

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

(c) 2015 Trina Lambert

Excuse me while I skip ahead to educational lessons I learned not while studying humanities, but while pursuing something totally different: an MBA. Sometimes my inner MBA rises up and pushes all that humanities knowledge to the side—though I’d like to think the analytical skills I honed in classes such as English literature led to my not only being able to analyze plots, characters, and themes, but also to do so with balance sheets, customer service philosophies, and branding decisions. Maybe that’s just why some people in the business community would rather not hear what I have to say.

So one of the big buzz words these days is branding. Branding this, branding that, branding yourself, branding your corporation, branding your non-profit, whatever. Really, it’s simply what Shakespeare brought up in Hamletto thine own self be true. And when you apply that to a business, branding is about making sure that the goodwill about your organization remains consistent with your mission and how you want those values communicated in the commercial world.

With large organizations, we, the customers, supposedly know what to expect if the company has created its brand well and protects it well. Whether I go to a Wendy’s by my home or thousands of miles away, there is this consistent feel to what it means to eat at a Wendy’s. Though menu variety and pricing fluctuates in minor ways from state-to-state, Wendy’s is still Wendy’s. If I want something else, then I go to the local Mom & Pop restaurant that does what it does—in a consistent or inconsistent manner—but knowing that that restaurant has its own way of doing things. If there’s no formula, as the consumer I take the risk that my experience will turn out better or worse than my expectations. Branded organizations such as Wendy’s are essentially making a promise that Wendy’s is what it is—nothing more or nothing less—but that I can mostly rely on a standard expectation of what going to a Wendy’s means. If that is not true, then Wendy’s brand begins to slip in the consumers’ minds.

Which is why I am flabbergasted to discover that the stand-alone Verizon store by my house is not what’s called a direct store, but an indirect store, similar to those found inside Target or Wal-Mart, according the Verizon representative.

Back story: what began as a simple online chat to discover how to access the discounts on Verizon accessories we were supposed to receive on our most recent purchase, led to my discovery that our Verizon store was in fact not a Verizon store. Now mind you, this did not come out until the representative finally figured out why she could not access my receipt, despite my giving her the invoice number and the time stamp. This is an hour of my life that I will never get back, but what I discovered about the business practice employed also makes no sense.

OK—so we can get the discounts applied through this local store. Small problem will get resolved—although I have to think it shouldn’t take me an hour to discover just why the branded representative could not resolve my problem herself. Plus, I think she should have been given some systemic way—through the receipt number or something—that indicated to her that I had in fact made the purchase at one of these so-called indirect stores.

However, the big issue comes down to trust. If I am not walking into an obvious indirect store, such as those in discount stores, why would I not think that a store that has the Verizon name on its walls is anything but a real—I mean direct—Verizon store? Frankly I don’t even know if our purchase price and the associated services are any different from what we could get in a direct store, but I do know I feel duped. We wanted to upgrade this Verizon phone through a direct store as we had done for every phone we have gotten since 2007—including the three phones we upgraded this year.

It’s not up to the customer to realize that the store he or she is visiting is a different sort of store—this information should be obvious. My experience with the brand told me a store meant one thing but apparently Verizon is using its brand for more than one kind of a store. That makes no sense to me—either as a customer or as a person who studied business. By making this issue confusing to the average customer, Verizon is muddying what its brand means and is at risk for introducing doubts about what else it might be muddying. I, for one, feel as if every time I go in such a store that I receive a different story about what costs are and what services come with what. By obfuscating what a store is or isn’t, Verizon is also leaving me to question the trustworthiness of these other practices.

I can’t say if Verizon is being true to me, but I have to say that it may not be being true to its own self—by introducing doubt into what is really included in its brand. But here’s what this one particular customer wants—that direct stores have a standardized look that is distinctly different from indirect stores. Maybe Verizon thinks the look is different enough, but if it is, it’s not so different that I knew that this local store is not the same kind of store as the ones I’ve patronized in the past.

The humanities taught me to question and analyze concepts presented to me as truths, while what I learned in business school taught me the hows and whys behind business concepts. In either case, what I gained was a deeper ability to dig beneath the surface to understand when something made sense—and when it didn’t.

To thine own brand be true—that’s just good sense—business or otherwise.

(c) 2015 Christiana Lambert

(c) 2015 Christiana Lambert


Winter term, freshman year, on a bleak, white-washed January Ohio day, I showed up for the first day of that necessary evil of college: composition or expository writing or whatever you want to call the class each college makes you take to ensure you write well enough to get through any future college writing assignments. That day I met my future academic adviser, though I didn’t know it yet. The major hadn’t chosen me yet so I still had the adviser assigned to me before I showed up on campus. Dr. B. seemed the picture of one of those common caricatures of what a literature professor is like—he was a former beatnik with a salt and pepper early Beatles’ style haircut who rode an old black bike across campus, keeping his small manual typewriter set in the mesh basket attached to the front. He wanted us to call him by his initials or his nickname, but I stuck with the formal “Dr.” whenever I addressed him. I was way more uptight than this man, but we got along just fine, nonetheless.

When I left for college, I wrote well enough—you know, for a person who could apply basic grammar rules. My papers made sense and I could say what I meant. Still, like most of my peers, I did not write well enough to test out of the basic composition class. At the time I put that down to a writing prompt that had something to do with the Iran Hostage Crisis. As I mentioned in the previous post, I was really not into thinking that deeply at that point in time, but I’m pretty certain the reason I didn’t test out of the class was because I needed to take it not because of the difficulty of the prompt.

What I learned most in his class was less about writing with correct grammar—because I already did that well—and more about how to create writing that sounded fresh in a variety of settings. Yes, we could insert fragments (incomplete sentences) as long as we applied them sparingly and used our pens to indicate we knew what and where they were. (Excuse me while I apologize to him right now since it appears I often ignore his “sparingly” rule regarding usage of fragments—sorry, Dr. B.)

However, the fragments are just something that really resonates with who I am as a writer. I imagine I might write better if I stopped making quite so many asides. Not that I’m stopping. (Mark that frag. for Dr. B.) What mattered most was that he taught me and all my classmates the difference between writing in passive and active voice. He challenged us to circle every instance of passive voice we used in our papers and to leave as few as necessary in the final drafts. Even if I hadn’t majored in English or chosen to write/edit, I would have needed to learn this—hey, I think everyone needs to know how to write in active voice. Not only does writing become more immediate with active voice, but using it also forces writers to search deeper for just the right verb, something that tends to develop a more creative process.

To this day, I struggle to get through a book that distances itself through passive language. Maybe reading all those (mostly ancient) philosophy texts my first weeks in college influenced the amount of relief I felt from learning how to bring about some clarity in writing! Yet, I have read books on topics such as probability, process management, business, psychology, and DNA but only if written well—which for me tends to mean the writing uses active language. Even the chemistry and astronomy textbooks I proofread last fall avoided most usages of passive voice—the writing spelled out concepts in a straightforward and accessible manner that should aid future students in applying those concepts to the associated exercises and experiments.

Some of life happens to us—passive voice sometimes works in the tales we tell of those stories, but not always—unless, of course, we are deliberately trying to downplay the action. Imagine the emotional and visual difference between saying “I was hit by a car” versus saying “A car hit me”—one creates distance and a sort of matter-of-fact impression of the news while the other projects a strong picture that could lead to a more visceral response. Nonetheless, the first statement is exactly how my mother finally admitted she did remember after all that a car hit her first before she came home and fell again. Though my mom had a story to tell, she did not want to do so—she deliberately fell back on passive voice to obfuscate the facts.

Don’t make the mistake of using passive voice when you really want others to hear your story, though. Doesn’t matter if it’s an annual report for a business or a technical how-to piece or the story of how your mother broke her foot—if you want the reader to stay with the story, write in active voice as often as you can.

(Even after a car hit my mother, she healed well. Thank goodness we soon found a doctor practiced enough at listening to seniors that he could interpret passive voice narratives meant to conceal health and/or safety concerns.)

Note: this is the first in the series of topics/concepts encountered in college that mattered most to me. See the introduction post here.

(c) 2014 Sherman Lambert

(c) 2014 Sherman Lambert

When I went to select a college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to study for a major or what profession I wanted to pursue, so I looked for schools that had good programs in the variety of subjects that interested me. I figured that with exposure to different areas, the major would choose me. However, I already knew I wanted to continue studying Spanish—my high school teacher said at that time the U.S. was the fourth largest Spanish-speaking nation—surely knowing Spanish would continue to be useful no matter what else I studied.

So when the course options and registration materials arrived at my home a few months before I left for school, I selected a Spanish class and then mulled other options. Since this was back in the pencil and paper days, I had no idea which of my other suggestions would end up on my schedule until the paper with course numbers and times arrived. My first trimester classes represented a classic humanities schedule: the Spanish course, history (Western Civilization Part I), and Philosophy (Greek and Roman).

My introduction to philosophy didn’t exactly set me on fire. Though my son Jackson can go on for hours about all sorts of in-depth topics in philosophy, usually what he says goes way over my head. But if I had not taken that class with the lectures and texts that so often put me to sleep, I might have missed out on learning about Plato’s Cave. True, maybe I only stayed awake in class the day the professor introduced the topic because he showed it through a cartoon video—I’m not ashamed to admit that without those simplistic pictures I might have missed the point. Learning comes through many avenues, right?

Though so many years have passed since I watched that film, I can still see those men who were chained together in the cave, facing a wall and unable to turn to look behind them where a large fire burned. Shadows flicker on the wall—the men have no idea the images are mere suggestions of themselves or any activity happening behind them. Those shadows are their reality. Then one man is released and able to turn to see that so much more is occurring—he realizes the truth he knew was only partial. That same man then discovers a way out of the cave and encounters even more realities—even those who move freely within the cave do not know the whole truth, it seems. Amazed, he returns to tell the others how much more exists in the world—and, yet, they do not believe. They know what they know.

What a perfect concept to encounter so early in my education. The Cave taught me to question all assumed realities and to try to figure out for myself whether or not what I think I know about something is simply the shadows of that truth or if my understanding is based on something more tangible. On the other hand the Cave also showed me why others might not agree with my version of reality—and that sometimes the person who has seen the sun cannot enlighten others who have only known darkness and shadows, no matter how hard he or she tries.

I’m lucky I learned anything academically during my first months at college. Oh sure, I was going to all my classes and doing all my work—even if I had a lot to learn about time management—but I wasn’t really thinking very critically yet. The Cave opened my own eyes to the importance of thinking about what I was being taught—which was a good thing to learn early because in my four years at that college I was going to encounter a whole lot of blue books I had to fill with my own answers to essay questions. I could hardly believe that I could get A’s on philosophy tests simply by stating what I thought of what we were studying—I mean, what did I know about philosophy? My success on those tests showed me that maybe professors weren’t just looking for me to parrot what I’d been told.

Could it be the reality of pursuing an education was about way more than just doing the work? That it wasn’t enough to be a vessel filled with ideas taught by others?

In so many ways, previously my own idea of learning was like being chained in that cave. Take what you see and memorize it. How much better to be called to discern for myself whether what appeared to be reality was true light or simply shadows on a wall—or somewhere in between.

Not only might a major choose the person, but also sometimes so does knowledge.

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